Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Return of the Iron Fist: Child Management Part 2

Lately I've noticed a discussion on a list-serv I follow about child management in the library. I wrote a successful post last summer that has been helpful to many, but this debate made me realize I didn't go far into the use of the negative in rule-making in the children's area.
Mainly because our problem was bribery of children to behave.
But truly, on the other end of the spectrum, there is a matter of writing rules for children and tweens that are inviting rather than negative.
The entirety of what I'm about to write will probably sound overly fluffy. You may dismiss it, as some might, assuming that by omitting the word "No" only feeds the fire of Precious Snowflake Culture.
But I assure you, this is anything but. This is years of trying and failing and trying again and failing and crying in the bathroom and then trying again because me and kids were stuck together.

I actually got overwhelmed by kid behavior more  than once this summer as well. After the successful takeover of the boat, this summer saw an uptick of abuse on Longfellow, our life-size stuffed giraffe that is apparently older than a whole lot of people. I mean truly, what is there to do, after being reminded twice to only pet Longfellow because he is very old, than to rally four other kids to help you rock him with all your might just to see if he'll fall off the base? It's clearly the only logical thing to do.

I really hated being the meanie who brings out the Ms. Bryce voice, but I use it sparingly and specifically for children who are meeting my respectful suggestions with continued disrespect, especially when it borders on injury or destruction of property. I must say, though, it gets the results needed.

I also felt bad because I was being reactive. It's okay to have an authoritative bark on your side when you absolutely need it, but if you find yourself needing it too often it's time to look at your space.
Luckily, Longfellow recently "went on vacation" to the basement. We'll show you, kids, trying to have fun in the library!

(No, really, it's not like that. Removing Longfellow was a proactive measure against any future altercations concerning him. We are setting our patrons up for success by taking the temptation of his destruction out of the equation.)
Ultimately, that's what your space, and your rules, should do.
Success Through Suggestion
No cellphones. No sleeping. No loitering.
These are all rules that work for adults (assuming they know what "loitering" is). This is because adults have the cognitive ability to deduce a suitable activity based on what they see around them, as well as apply those rules broadly.
Please humor me while I show, in graphical form, what this means for rules in your library:
Chart that illustrates adults can decide what to do instead when they're told not to do something 
As you can see, an adult brain has the cognitive ability to not be total jerkfaces. Unless they are total jerkfaces, in which case they would talk on their cellphone regardless of what signage or reminders you have.
Chart that illustrates how children may NOT understand what to do instead.

That "what I'll do instead" column is where children navigating a new space (such as the library) get into trouble. They quickly run out of ideas. Not because they have no imagination, but because what they have imagined to do is annoying, or dangerous, or has otherwise elicited a negative response. There's less and less, in their mind, they can do. At the very least they're bored, and at the worst the child begins to form anxieties about the library because they're afraid of breaking the rules by accident. You're frustrated, and the library is no fun for anybody. (For more on kids' tendency to "break the rules" in the eyes of adults, check out this great post at Not Just Cute.)

An easy fix is to turn a "don't" into a "please", and to give them options. So that means: "Walk, please!" instead of "No running!" and "Please match my voice" instead of "No yelling!" But also, it means allowing the child to choose how to correct their behavior. For instance: "I know the chairs are bouncy, but that's because they're really comfy when you sit still. Feel how soft! Please use all the chairs for sitting. Would you like to get a book to read on one? Or would you like me to get one for you?"

This sets the child up for success because they now have added to their column "what I can do instead."
I know there are some people out there thinking, "well that won't work." What if it doesn't work? If the child starts jumping again, tell them they they need to leave the chair and please try the AWE computers, or the literacy area, or something else specific in your library. Ask, "which one of these would you like to do?" and insist they do one of them. (Oh, also, don't use the word "okay?" at the end of your sentences. This gives the child the option of saying "no" and adds a vulnerability to your statement especially if you're already unsure. And you're back where you started)

Now, I know that some readers may be approaching this post already frustrated. They may be thinking, "Well, the parents should be teaching their children how to use the library. They have a responsibility."

And, yes, some readers would have a point. And to that, I must reference the end of Mean Girls (7:15 in this clip), and say that we can huff about "kids these days" and parents all we want, but that will not do anything to improve a child's behavior in the library.

From my days in education, I remember an adage: We cannot expect anyone to know anything we didn't teach them ourselves. Just like I can't make a math problem out of tennis scores because I feel like it, I can't tell a child to use the library properly without explaining what that even means.
Take the following examples, that I have heard in the past week from adults:
- "So my son can attend programs here for free?"
- "Are we allowed to take the books from the top of the shelves?" (on display)
- "Can we read this book in the library and not check it out?"
- "My neighbor says he checks out DVDs here like books. Is that true?"
So, yeah. Preserve your own sanity and take a minute to actually talk to a kid about their library options. Your lack of sore throat from screaming will thank you.

Children as Patrons
Children are adults-in-development. They are not: miniature adults; pets of adults; ferocious animals; aliens (citation needed; jury is still out on the last one). In the YS area, children are your patrons.

This weekend a grandma and a six-year-old went home with Toy Story and Spiderman books rather than Frog and Toad, much to the grandma's disappointment with her grandson's taste in books. But tough cookies; he was super excited to read what he got! I did sell him on some Elephant and Piggie books, which have won awards, so she was satiated with that, though skeptical. 
You wouldn't run a reader's advisory interview with a parent if the child is present, right? Likewise, you need to approach a child if they are not acting in an appropriate manner in the library. 

The effectiveness of this is three-fold:
1. This is your space, and the concept of ownership (or, "dibs") is familiar to and respected by children everywhere. You can use this to your advantage by stating that whatever they are using is yours, and then tell them a way to use it.
2. Talking to the child demonstrates that their behavior is  not their parents'. Talking to the child show that you and the parent are on the same side. The parent understands you are not attacking their parenting skills, and does not feel [as] defensive.
3. Treating the child like an autonomous human motivates them to live up to your expectations. Parents' knapsacks have no expectations placed on them. Children do.

Final Thought
I wish you luck. The journey to effective child management is long, but worth it.
I think.

I still sometimes use my Ms. Bryce voice to get things done. But I can say that it gets easier, little by little, until one day six months from now your significant other comments about how much energy you have left after work, and as it turns out this is because your day no longer feels like a chaotic child-terror-filled mess.

That brings me to a parting notion. A mantra, if you will:
They don't rule you.
Don't be afraid.
They are just children.
How do you handle kids at your library? Add your suggestions to the comments! Or make your own blog post that I will gladly link here. We need all the help we can get! Edit: see Marge's post at Tiny Tips for Library Fun for more introspective on space management practices. Thanks, Marge, for weighing in!

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